City Girl

City Girl

It’s surely a failure of the human condition that we believe the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Kate, the title character in City Girl takes this attitude to an almost masochistic level. She may be a quick-witted (if slightly jaded) waitress from jumpin’, jivin’ Chicago who can give it back as good as she gets it from her motor-mouthed customers but she dreams of escape; a restaurant calendar depicting scenes of the prairie providing a fanciful escape from the drudgery of work. Then one day in walks Lem, a farmer’s son in town to sell the annual crop. He dresses well, is charming to a fault and even prays before eating his meal. Kate falls for him instantly.

The feeling is mutual because when Lem, something of a lummox, finally gets his wits about him he professes his undying, and even takes on the role of knight in shining armour when a fellow customer gets a little too tactile with Kate. Fate is clearly telling us these two should be together and sure enough they are married right away and before the day is out are on the return train to Lem’s Minnesota farm.

She loves what she sees at first, cute stone farmhouse in an ocean of wheat fields but when she enters the homestead she finds out what she’s bought into and begins to, well perhaps not regret her haste but certainly entertain second thoughts. The rot in this particular State of Denmark, you see is Lem’s father – a seething six foot six Scots puritan. The couple easily charm Lem’s mother and young sister but when the father walks in the door he is interested only in the price his son has got for the crop. It’s below his lowest acceptable price so Lem is upbraided and humiliated in front of his betrothed. Father then turns his wrath on the newest member of the family, accusing her of having the basest of motives and telling her to leave the house immediately.

She stands her ground and is given a slap to the face as payback. Expecting her beloved to step in and save her honour as before he instead skulks out of the house mumbling that he cannot be expected to strike his own father. Isolated in the middle of the plains, an abusive father-in-law and a gutless husband who’s fallen at the first hurdle? Not the ideal way to start a honeymoon.

City Girl

So begins Kate’s not so fun on the farm. Father expects her to earn her keep so it’s not long before she’s back in her previous service role waitressing to the gang of farmhands hired to bring in the crop while Lem, sickened by shame, abandons the marital bed and loses himself in the hard work of the fields. On top of that one of the hired hands gets it into his head that Kate should run off with him and won’t leave her alone until she accedes.

I suppose it spoils nothing to say everything eventually works out for the best but along the way this is a tender and insightful look at rural life in the post depression Mid West. Murnau excels both in the exceptional panoramas of the wheat harvest and with his portraits of the struggling protagonists, the two central lovers delivering particularly touching performances.

A late masterpiece from one of the giants of silent cinema.

City Girl – directed by FW Murnau (1930)


In Short
A country bumpkin goes to the big city to sell the annual crop and comes back with a wife. His father does not take kindly.
Trailer here